From Chaos to Calm
The yogic guide to coping with Covid19
During the Coronavirus pandemic, you may have quite suddenly found yourself working remotely from home while simultaneously managing your household, supporting a spouse who may also be working from home or who have lost their job, and taking care of the wellbeing and education of your kids. It's a big ask and it's not easy, particularly as our current circumstances are compounded with worry, anxiety, potential burnout from the stress of it all. So how on earth do we cope with all of this uncertainty, and come out of Covid19 on top, or at least intact? The ancient tradition of yoga provides us with some surprising answers and strategies.
Stress vs. Self-care. Which side are you on?
The pandemic we are currently living through has highlighted our individual strengths and adaptability, but also our tendencies towards worry, anxiety and stress. Even as we may start to venture back to our 'normal lives', we all need self-care strategies to strengthen our resilience and capacity to cope with change.
So far here in Australia we've been cushioned from the worst of the health crisis, thanks to early interventions and our continuing compliance with social distancing measures. However, the economic and social impact is massive and still unfolding. Even if our kids are back at school within weeks, social distancing and perhaps working at home may be here to stay for the next few months at least.
The industries which were the first to close – the arts, cultural, spiritual, sporting facilities, restaurants, even our playgrounds and beaches are our places of community and connection. Set adrift from our places of wellbeing and also from our support networks of extended families, friends, child care and more, we've never been more insular, isolated and dependent upon those in our households for love, support and wellbeing.
For parents juggling a fulltime workload with kids at home from school or daycare and no external support, the situation can be overwhelming, with many working parents experiencing situational anxiety, despair and even depression which in itself is debilitating and reduces our overall capacity to cope, but also potentially impacts on work performance and ability to meet expectations and targets.
When both planned and unexpected change occurs in the normal course of life, there is a process of 'letting go', of grieving, of accepting, of working through the changes and emotions, of rediscovering and redefining ourselves. This takes time. There are support mechanisms to help us through. The problem with Covid19 is that the change process is so accelerated, none of us are were prepared for the rollercoaster of shifting circumstances and emotions. We can barely keep up. So how on earth do we cope with all of this uncertainty, and come out of Covid19 intact, or in the best case scenario, on top?
How to use yoga as a support
The ancient tradition of yoga provides us with some surprising answers and strategies. While many people might associate yoga with exercise and relaxation, as this is largely what is on offer in our local studios and gyms, traditional yoga is more about managing the mind and bringing negative thoughts, emotions and stress under our control with the aim of maintaining a clear, calm, balanced state of mind even through the most difficult of circumstances.
Traditional Hatha Yoga is a holistic system of self-care. It is one of the oldest philosophical and practical systems of wellbeing on record, and remarkably the key components of the yoga system - meditation, mindfulness, breathing, relaxation - have been retained and are largely unchanged. The movement practices of yoga which you might know from the gym or studio are called 'asanas' and it is these which have been adapted to suit the modern, more sedentary lifestyle we've adopted since the advent of the industrial revolution and look radically different to the exercises of pre-modern yoga.
The ancient yoga texts describe various frameworks to understand the self, the world, and our existence, and go as far as to identify the common problems and obstacles to human happiness we all face, and put forward practical solutions to address and transform the root causes of unhappiness, stress and suffering. Frameworks create useful templates to help us to understand ourselves objectively and to recognise the same tendencies in others.
Through this acknowledgement that the human experience - what drives us, what we want, what we don’t want, what we fear - is fundamentally the same for all of us, our capacity for compassion, kindness and acceptance increases and our tendencies to blame or find fault with others or our circumstances or the world at large decreases. Even when we experience a major setback, it's possible to simply accept the way things are, particularly if we can’t change them, to be curious about how
Western psychology also provides such frameworks and there are useful and workable parallels between them, which is why meditation and mindfulness has been so widely studied and incorporated into psychological interventions alongside traditional therapies such as counselling and medication to manage stress and mental imbalance or illness.
Caring for the whole self
One useful framework popular with modern yoga teachers and therapists who use yoga to bring about meaningful, positive change is the concept of the 5 layered self. In the ancient yoga texts, humans are described as having 5 concentric layers, or 'bodies', being the outer physical-body (being the most obvious and knowable of the bodies), then the mind-body (comprised of deep-seated beliefs, emotions and thoughts), and then the more subtle breath-body (our energy and life-force), the wisdom-body (innate intelligence and creativity) and the peace body (the capacity to feel inner peace, contentment and wellbeing even in stressful times). These 5 bodies are described as being home to the inner self, or soul.
Self-care vs Stress
According to yoga, every aspect of the self is interconnected. So if there is imbalance in one area then we might experience symptoms in another area. For example, if you are worried or anxious (mind-body), then stress hormones are triggered and you may experience the initial symptoms of stress physically, such as accelerated heartbeat, restricted breathing, headaches, tightness in the muscles, digestive issues etc. If the cause of these symptoms isn't addressed, then they may progress to more chronic issues which become harder to address at the root.
During the pandemic, you may have found yourself focussed or fixated on survival, safety and simply getting through the day. Parents who have been working from home during Covid19 may find themselves so immersed in the everyday duties of home and work, taking care of ALL of the needs of their families while holding down their jobs, they're not going to be accessing the intuitive wisdom, problem-solving capacity and ability to maintain unbroken focus (wisdom-body) required to effectively and successfully work from home. The quality and volume of work may be impacted, thereby creating more anxiety and stress (mind-body), which decreases energy and life-force (breath-body), resulting in exhaustion and possibly burnout (physical-body), perpetuating the cycle of stress.
This is where Hatha Yoga as a method of holistic self-care becomes important. The aim of yoga is to bring about internal balance by focussing on what is often neglected in every day life - the peace-body. Through incorporating the five key areas of yoga into daily life - mindful movement, breathing, meditation, relaxation and everyday mindfulness - we are accessing an innate peacefulness and calmness usually buried underneath the layers of thought, emotion and worry.
Baseline of calm
A baseline of calm in times of ongoing hardship, you'll probably be experiencing low (or high) levels of ongoing stress. When we keep on going and don't stop the process our nervous system becomes overstimulated, the endocrine system overwhelmed with stress hormones and our stress response easily triggered even through what would normally be considered minor events resulting in reactionary bursts of emotion and impulsive behaviour followed by exhaustion.
Over time, you normalise this way of functioning, until it becomes your default state of mind, and your baseline of wellbeing. If this has become your normal, then being calm, in control of your thoughts and emotions and well in body and mind may seem impossibly distant.
Yoga directly and positively creates an internal balance and wellbeing in each area of the self. Even in these chaotic times it is possible to establish a baseline state of wellbeing based on calmness, clarity, vitality and steadiness.
The five key areas of traditional yoga together all have a role to play in our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. This is why yoga is considered to be 'holistic' - every aspect of the who you are is potentially positively benefitted from incorporating a little of each of the five points of yoga into daily life.
This balanced state of wellbeing then becomes your new baseline. Through the mindfulness practices you come to notice when imbalances arise, and if you are established in even some of the simplest of the yogic practices such as regulating and slowing down your breathing and thoughts, you can easily come back to this baseline of wellness, before things get out of your control.
The solutions proposed by yoga require a little commitment of quiet time each day for meditation, yoga breathing and exercise, perhaps some adjustments to your daily routine so you're living more in harmony with the needs and rhythms of your own body and mind, and a desire and willingness to change the habits and patterns of thinking which are detrimental to your wellbeing and contribute to feeling overwhelmed and stressed. It might not seem like it, but you have more control over what you think and feel than you realise.
20 minutes a day
Once you become established in some simple grounding yoga, meditation and breathing routines, you will start to feel calmer, become less reactionary and more resilient and better able to deal with challenges, with less stress hormones creating havoc with your health, you'll start to feel better physically and clearer mentally. You thereby become a better support for your loved ones providing safety and stability for your family and others in your world. This has a positive effect on partners, children, and even colleagues who take their cues from you.
This extended period of time at home is the ideal time to sincerely commence a routine of self-care. Yoga needn't take hours every day. Even a few 10 minute sessions are manageable for most people to integrate into the working day and will give you a positive result. If you're a parent working at home with kids these moments alone practicing some self-care are critically important for your wellbeing and that of your family.
Yogic meditation, breathing and mindfulness are super-easy. You don't need any particular clothes or fancy equipment and there are no complicated techniques you need to master to get the result. You can therefore get your kids to do some of the simple practices to help them manage their mental and emotional states too.
Remember, while you may feel calmer, lighter, happier while doing your yoga, it takes a good few weeks of diligent effort to truly make lasting changes and break negative habits and thought patterns. There might be some initial resistance to change. Sometimes the easy path is to continue through life without really examining why we think and act in the way we do. In some cases, we might even thrive on the drama or negative emotional states because it affirms deeply held buried beliefs and concepts about who we are. There is some effort involved in resisting the tendencies to go back to that.
Instead, try out some yoga everyday for the next three weeks while working at home. Be realistic about what you can commit to and then go for it.
Routine of self-care
We need to create a container, a structure within daily life to integrate the 5 key areas of yoga. Establishing a routine where this is prioritised is fundamental to your wellbeing. Therefore aim to commit to 20 minutes in the mornings and evenings as a starting point, and then increase the duration of your yoga sessions as you become more focussed and time-efficient in other areas of your life. If it is possible do your yoga practice sessions alone and without distraction. This then becomes an act of kindness and care for the self, which can then be shared with children or your partner once you 'have filled your own cup'.
We share here two 20 minute video tutorials which include simple and easy practice sessions which both include all of the 5 aspects of yoga - movement, breathing, relaxation, meditation and mindfulness for you to follow.
The morning practice session is a little more dynamic to awaken and activate the five aspects of the self (body, mind, breath, intelligence, peace), and the evening session is to bring quietness to the mind, relaxation and softness to the body, and calmness to the nervous system in preparation for sleep. At other times of day try to commit to mindfulness - noticing where your mind goes and if you do slip into doubt or become anxious, make an effort to transform negative thoughts with the simple methods shared in the videos and below.
These sessions are particularly focussed on what is most beneficial for those of us feeling stuck or stressed during these challenging times. You'll also find below more detailed descriptions of each of the 5 points of the Hatha Yoga Method below to help you build your stay-at-home yoga routine.
Integrating daily yoga and establishing healthy habits which enhance your life could be a positive and beneficial outcome of the pandemic for you and your family. You may even come out of Covid-19 on top - calmer, more centred, focussed and resilient than going into it.
Your morning session
Join Robert and Mandy for a 20 minute morning Hatha Yoga session which includes 10 minutes of yoga asana and movement, focus on yoga breathing, and a mindfulness meditation focussed on bringing calmness and clarity to the mind and lightness and vitality to the body, to get you ready for the day.
Your evening session
Join Robert and Mandy for a 23 minute evening Hatha Yoga session which includes some yoga poses and movements to ease tension in the body and gently integrate breathing to prepare you for a soothing meditation on the breath and guided relaxation to prepare you for a restful sleep.
The 5 key aspects of Hatha Yoga
What differentiates the Hatha Yoga Method from other systems of wellbeing is that these 5 key aspects of yoga don’t stand alone - each aspect works in synergy with the others to bring about the calming, balancing and transformational potential of the practices. If you single out one area below, for example if you undertake a regime of yoga poses without a focus on breathing, meditation and mindfulness, it is simply exercise, and while you might get fit you won't experience the cited benefits of yoga.
Yoga requires us to move and breathe slowly and mindfully. We use short sequences of poses which move and extend the body along its natural movement pathways thereby stretching the muscles and increasing the range of movement in the joints. Our aim to establish healthy beneficial patterns of movement and breathing and to move each body segment in each direction - forwards, backwards, side to side, twisting and lengthening.
Ideally we learn to integrate breathing with our movements to increase our mindfulness, or focus on the here and now, and decrease the wandering and worrying tendencies of the mind. This keeps us safe in our yoga practice too as we are less likely to overdo it which might cause injury or strain.
There are two main approaches to the movement practices of yoga - the first is dynamic moving and breathing in synchronicity. This requires engagement and activation of the muscles and some effort and focus as you move into and out of the yoga poses in a fluid and graceful manner. This helps build lightness and flexibility in the body.
The second approach is more static where we stay in some of the shapes for longer periods of time, quietening the mind and deepening the sensation through mindfulness. This helps strengthen and stabilise the body, and release tightness and tension.
We don't need to be too caught up on assuming perfect shapes or being flexible enough or fit enough. Anyone can do yoga. What is most important is moving mindfully and gently. There is no need to be too fixated on any particular method of doing this. It doesn't matter if it is walking, dancing, swimming or stretching it is the mindfulness, kindness and self-love which matters.
Relaxation in yoga is different to meditation and often a precursor to the more focussed and active meditation practices. Relaxation is a physiological function of the nervous system. The 'relaxation response' also known as the 'rest and digest' response is the opposite of the 'stress response' or the 'fight or flight response'.
The stress response is when your nervous system is flooded with hormones which prepare you to 'flight or take flight. It is triggered in threatening situations which require immediate, instinctive action to quite literally survive. This is when stress is appropriate. Stress becomes harmful when the stress response is constantly turned on, stress becomes overwhelming and interrupts the normal healthy state of equilibrium which your nervous system requires to stay in balance.
The solution in yoga is to utilise a variety of relaxation methods to bring your nervous system back to balance by interrupting this heightened state of readiness. Through methods such as deep slow breathing, parasympathetic nervous system is activated your heart rate decreases, muscles relax, breathing slows, blood pressure drops, mind calms down and the body softens.
There are everyday activities which help you relax - such as walking in nature, spending time with quiet calm people, a gentle massage, even dimming the lights in the evenings, gazing at the moon, spending time away from technology. In yoga there are specific techniques which fast track the relaxation response.
One of the most direct ways is to shift your focus from your thoughts to the body's senses and then to the slow, steady rhythm of your body breathing. Try this simple technique to experience the immediate shift into relaxation.
Close your eyes if you're comfortable to do so, and fully focus your attention on one sense at a time. Start with touch (rest your hands lightly palms down over the chest or belly and notice the sensation of touch. Your hands remain here as you shift your focus to the mouth / taste, then the nose / smell, then the eyes / sight (and even with your eyes closes just notice what you see as you gaze softly at the back of the eyelids), and then sound (try focussing on the external sounds and rotating your focus so you give each sound your full attention) and then come to the inner sounds of your body breathing and perhaps your heart beat. At this point you can consciously slow down and deepen your breathing and focus your full attention on the sensations associated with the breath.
Our state of mind is reflected in our breathing. When under stress we breathe very quickly and shallowly as the body prepares for danger. When this is unregulated we may also experience the anxiety and excessively rapid breathing reducing our oxygen intake resulting in feelings of panic.
Yogic breathing teaches us to bring the stress response, and even anxiety, under our control. Even children can potentially manage stress and their emotions by becoming adept at simple breathing techniques.
Controlled breathing techniques directly affect the nervous system. There are many breathing techniques used in yoga to bring about different affects. By simply breathing slowly and deeply through your nose you can change the message your brain is receiving from danger to feeling all is well. Breathing through your mouth triggers the stress response while breathing through your nose activates the relaxation response.
The first technique to master is what we call the 'complete breath'- to completely fill the lungs on the inhalation and to completely empty the lungs on the exhalation by breathing in and out slowly and deeply through your nose. The aim is to use the whole lung capacity.
Try this simple technique which you can incorporate with the relaxation practice mentioned above. Sit down, or lie down somewhere quiet where you won't be interrupted. Place your hands lightly upon the chest and one hand lightly over the abdomen. Breathe out completely. Then breathe in through your nose directing the breath to the lower lungs expanding the lower ribcage at the front, back and sides. Continue to inhale smoothly until the lungs feel full. Pause and really notice the sensation of lightness and fullness at the chest.
Then to breathe out, draw the navel in towards the spine so you feel a contraction of the abdominal muscles. This helps lift the diaphram and expel all the air from the lungs on a long, smooth exhalation through your nose. Once the lungs feel flat and empty, pause and focus on the feeling of emptiness. You can do up to 12 rounds or even more. The key is to slow down your breathing and to be fully focussed on the sensations associated with the body breathing. It takes a while to get accustomed to breathing in this way, particularly through the nose. Try it out. Give yourself a good few minutes to experience a shift in mood.
Meditation can be very simple, in fact the simpler the method the more effective it potentially is as the aim of meditation is to quieten the mind down, to reduce worrying thoughts and the feeling there are 'things to do'. Meditation is essentially a method of bringing our awareness to the contents of our mind, and actively replacing the constant stream of thought - often quite unconscious, with a single thought of our choosing, or a single point of focus, which leads the mind to the peace. In yoga this single thought is called a 'mantra'. Mantra quite literally means to protect the mind from our own thoughts!
The simplest focus for meditation is the breath, particularly if you have learnt to slow and steady down your breathing through the technique shared above. To deepen your focus and activate the relaxation response you can use your voice to gently hum on the exhalation.
Begin by breathing in deeply and fully through your nose, and then as you breathe out hum a single sound such as aaah, oooh, hhmm with the intention of lengthening the sound and exhalation. Use any sound which is gentle, quiet and calming in its tone. This sound becomes the 'single thought' or mantra which temporarily halts and replaces the usual incessant stream of interior monologue.
After doing this for a few minutes, you can try internalising the sound. So instead of producing the sound aloud, it becomes inward. Focus on the breath, the inner sound, and the calm peaceful feeling it brings about. Even while you are doing all of this, the tendency of the mind is to wander, to get distracted, or even bored and take you miles away from this moment. It takes practice, and a little discipline to notice the moment a thought form arises, to observe where it takes you, and to bring your focus back to the body, breath and mantra.
You can replace the humming on the exhalation with a word or phrase which has a positive association. In yoga mantras are always in sanskrit and always lead the mind back to a quiet peaceful state. It may seem paradoxical but using sound or a word in this way quietens the mind enabling us, perhaps for the first time, to experience a pleasant experience of inner peacefulness.
Learning to breathe, calm the mind, to be peaceful and focussed at will through meditation is the foundation which you can apply to everything else you do.
Mindfulness is our capacity to be fully immersed and focussed in the present moment. Through our relaxation, breathing and meditation practice we start to develop the ability to notice thoughts as they arise, to notice the emotions which follow such thoughts and the decisions and actions which flow from the thoughts and emotions.
Through our inner observations we even become aware of the underlying beliefs which cause us to think, feel and react in the way we do. We quite literally come to see the patterns of our own minds, and can discern which thoughts are destructive and lead us into stress and unhappiness, and which thoughts lead us to peace and calmness.
This whole process is not usually something we are aware of. We're often caught by surprise by our thoughts and emotions, and make decisions without understanding the real basis or implications of our choices.
Everyday mindfulness is to bring the awareness we develop in our meditation practice into our everyday life, and to apply yogic thinking in the moments when it counts. When we find ourselves confined in our homes with our children or spouse, we may be quick to respond in anger or frustration. This is our opportunity to take a moment to breathe deeply, to pause, to replace the angry words which might normally tumble from our mouths, with some words of reassurance or calm.
This helps us to transform our inner state and it also helps to neutralise difficult or stressful situations involving other people. We may not like or be able to change another person, but we can certainly change our inner responses and reactions which helps us maintain harmony in our relationships, and most importantly calmness and steadiness within our own minds and hearts.
Our kids model themselves on their parents and those adults they spend the most time with. If you are able to manage and moderate your mind, thoughts and reactions this will be reflected in their behaviour too. This is what it means to be mindful. To be aware of all that we think, do and say, and to notice the effects upon ourselves and others.
All of yoga helps release tension, bringing the mind to calmness and body to softness. There are many resources available online. Remember, those which are most effective in restoring balance and reducing stress, will always integrate the 5 points of yoga, even if the specific focus is in one area. For example, most Hatha Yoga movement classes will integrate movement, breathing, meditation, relaxation and mindfulness.
This article is part of a series of 3 which include tips, video tutorials, resources for coping at home during Covid19. Be sure to follow us for parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks. Kookaburra Yoga are currently offering livestreamed yoga and meditation classes during Covid19. These are free for anyone who needs them to be: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kookaburrayogaonlineclasses
Mandy BeckerKnox is an Australian yoga and meditation teacher, food educator, and a founding director of Kookaburra Yoga. She has practiced and taught yoga over the past 30 years, continuing her study of traditional yoga with the contemporary yoga masters of India. Mandy is also a writer and communications specialist currently working on a series of Yogic Diet books and resources. In a previous incarnation Mandy was a graphic designer, editor, and CEO of a not-for-profit healthcare organisation. See www.kookaburrayoga.com